Why Is the Shofar Service in Three Sections in Mishkan HaNefesh?

May 8, 2015 by

Why Is the Shofar Service in Three Sections in Mishkan HaNefesh?

With Mishkan HaNefesh now close to being published, the decision regarding the Shofar sections made by the editors many years ago, and piloted for many a season, is naturally coming under review by colleagues.  The responses range from, “So excited” to “Wait, what is going on with the shofar service?”  It therefore seemed like a good time to review why we made this choice and why it has been so popular in the piloting – and why you should be excited about it.

As you will see when you open Mishkan HaNefesh, each service has a certain theme that we focus on throughout the liturgy.  The point is not to reduce a complex, theologically rich and poetically vibrant worship service to a slogan.  We do wish to privilege a certain message, however, because there are certain themes that ground the worship service.  As an example, if you can reduce a sermon to one essential sentence (which many homiletics professors suggest) that does not mean the rest of the sermon is redundant verbiage.IMG_2402

Early on in the creation of the machzor, the editors looked at Rosh HaShanah morning and decided that there is a particular symbolic act that permeates the whole morning.  Like synecdoche in literature, the one thing represents something far greater.  For us – and quite possible for you – that is the sounding of the shofar.  But it is more than the sound; it is the liturgy surrounding the shofar sounding.  And more in particular, it is the tripartite themes of malchyuot (Sovereignty), zichronot (Remembrance) and shofarot.

Reform Judaism did away with the musaf service on Rosh HaShanah (and everywhere else) long ago but kept the practice of the three shofar sections.  The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh realized that these themes and the sounding of the shofar could be developed and dramatized in a pervasive way by splitting the three sections into three different places in the worship service, each positioned in some logical place.  After experimentation during the piloting phase, we settled on the following: malchuyot would come in the Amidah, following the M’loch declaration.  Zichronot would follow the scriptural readings, including God remembering Sarah and Hannah.  And Shofarot would precede the closing prayers and the redemptive message of the second part of the Aleinu – l’taken olam b’malkhut Shadai.

Dividing the shofar sections means the congregation can spend more time with each theme.  Chevruta, musical selections, min-sermons, iyyunim, much can be innovated.  Or not.  The choice is up to the worship leaders.  One could even decide to feature the three sections one after the other if preferred.

When the editors first introduced this model of separating the three sections of the Shofar liturgy and blasts, it was admittedly met with some skepticism.  Because we were in the early piloting phase at that point, we decided to give it a try and evaluate after the piloting.  The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive about the way in which it impacted on the overall feel, flow, and meaningfulness of the service, even from those who had been the most resistant, that we chose to maintain this innovation.

Mishkan HaNefesh is not so easy for worship leaders not because it restricts choice.  Quite the contrary.  Because there are so many choices. Depending on the choices you make, these three shofar sections can become high points throughout the Rosh HaShanah morning service.

You should know that, in addition to the three shofar sections, the shofar also can be sounded earlier in the service as well as the night before.  These are possible soundings to once again focus on the prime imagery of the day.  Like the rest of the book, the idea is not to do everything.  Rather it is to decide what matters most for you and your congregation and employ the machzor in that endeavor.

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom in Chicago, and part of the editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh.

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